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China Takes Control of Upper Mekong



China has accorded a top priority to safety and security of the 4,880 kilometre river


CHIANGRAI TIMES – China has accorded a top priority to safety and security of the 4,880 kilometer river, which Beijing considers as a strategic shipping route. That helps explain why China’s reaction was so swift and unprecedented to the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on two cargo ships in the Golden Triangle – an area bordering Burma, Laos and Thailand which is festered with armed drug warlords, ethnic insurgents, smugglers and mercenaries. In the past weeks, both the Chinese authorities and media have been highlighting the issue since the October 5 tragedy. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao even called his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, to express concern and urged the Thai side to help with the investigation of the massacre. Within days, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung alleged nine Thai soldiers from Pa Muang Task Force in Chiang Rai were involved in the murder as the investigation continues.

The attack provides a groundswell for China to move quickly to protect its citizens and work out a mechanism of law enforcement and security cooperation among the four countries.

Along with this effort, Beijing earlier proposed a plan to form a joint patrol operation along the 273-kilometre portion of the Mekong River with their security forces on board the Chinese patrol boats. Thailand was among the first country to decline the idea as joint-security operation with foreign forces need approval from the Parliament under Article 190 of the charter – something the current government does not want to go through. However, Thailand agreed to a proposal calling for the establishment of Combined Operations Centre in Guanlei, Xishuangbanna that will act as the focal point for intelligence information about cargo ships travelling in and out of river ports to coordinate patrols. This way the Thai security forces can take up river patrols once the Chinese special force reaches the 9-kilometre segment of Thai territorial waters. So far, Thailand has yet to respond to China’s offer that Thai patrol boats could sail upstream in security uniforms, if need be. At the moment, two Thai officials are attached to the centre in Guanlei.

From now on, China will be the major partner in providing security along the region's longest river - the mighty Mekong River

Pol Gen Wichean Potephosree, secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC) told the author last week the arrangement was working very well and would deter cross-border crime. He said tourists and traders had gradually returned, including cargo transports from Yunnan to Chiang Saen after two quiet months due to the suspension of all shipping and touring along the river. He added that since the conclusion of Asean-China Free Trade Area, trade at this port had risen to an estimated of Bt200 million a day prior to the attack.

For centuries, the Mekong has served as the main transport route for people and goods from inland south-western China criss-crossing the heartland of Southeast Asia through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia down to the South China Sea via Vietnam. It was only in 2005 that blasting to clear away rapids and deepen the river’s channel was completed to allow navigation, especially along the upper Mekong, and the passage of bigger boats, promoting trade and tourism. As nearly all of the boats carry the Chinese flag and operate between Guanlei and Chiang Saen, the China-Thai cooperation has inevitably become pivotal in this new security surveillance. According to a statistic given by the NSC, there were only two robbery and attack incidents along the river between 2005-2010. However, the number shot up to 12 this year alone. The urgency to provide public safety along the river is quite obvious.

During the three-day visit of Vice President Xi Jinping to Bangkok last week, Xi emphasised China’s readiness to deepen the strategic partnership with Thailand to contribute to regional stability and prosperity.

Both Thai and Chinese leaders hailed the Mekong’s new security cooperation as a testimony of their increased strategic cooperation. Xi also included safety and security on the Mekong as one of four points on a priority plan to strengthen future Thai-China ties. Most importantly, both countries have agreed to set a two-way trade target of US$100 billion by 2015, when Asean becomes a single community. To do so, the Mekong must be safe and secure to facilitate bilateral imports and exports. At the moment, land transport between the two countries, which do not share a common border, is under-developed. River transport, albeit time-consuming, is still viable. According to a Chinese statistic, more than three million tonnes of cargo was moved south from Yunnan between 2000 and 2009.

Obviously, this new security frame-work is still a work in progress. At the moment, the Chinese authorities and media called the cooperation as joint patrols or multinational forces to safeguard the Mekong. Thai authorities still describe the cooperation clearly as a coordinated patrol because China’s special force and boats are not allowed to enter Thai waters. Therefore, this framework could be further modified depending on the outcome of cooperation on the river. Furthermore, this is also the first time that a special force from the Ministry of Public Security is taking part in a regional security manoeuvre. They were asked to familiarise with local environment, culture and taboos. If the scheme proceeds smoothly, it could be expanded.

China’s enthusiasm in providing security on the Mekong is indicative of its strong determination to face up to future challenges that might emanate from this strategic river. At the moment, there are several bilateral, trilateral, regional and multinational frameworks for developing the Mekong basin with some overlapping features. For instance, at present the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative has already served as a valuable framework for the US to work closely with lower riparian states but it is limited to non-security matters plus the environment, health, education and infrastructure. In the long-haul, it may affect upper riparian countries if lower members are able to consolidate their positions on key issues such as environmental protection.

The Mekong could be the region’s next hot spot if there are breaches of safety and worsening security involving armed elements. Other concerns include environmental conditions along the river and the poor livelihood of the most of the 70-million people who dwell four countries in the area. Ways must be found to improve their economic well-being; otherwise their poverty could affect public insecurity, and threaten the stability and security of the whole basin.

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